A Key Battle

The Conch Coalition and Taras Lyssenko claimed environmentalists were out to destroy the culture and economy of the Keys. Voters listened.

"You see, the Nature Conservancy gets the government to confiscate land, then they buy it, and then they sell it back to the government at a profit. They work hand in glove. When they sell land to the government, they keep the oil and mineral rights. They're not only one of the largest real estate companies in the world, they're also into oil and minerals heavy-duty, and they want to get into the treasure business."

As an afterthought, Fisher says, "This information I'm telling you is not dreamed up by me, it's written in a book. And I concur with everything that's in there."

The book in question, which King Mel passes out like a party favor, is called Trashing the Economy. The bulk of its 659 pages is a detailed compendium of how America's biggest environmental groups get their money. What they do with that money, according to authors Ron Arnold and Alan Gottlieb, is undermine democracy and the free enterprise system by throwing private-property owners off their land, eliminating jobs, and lobbying Congress for more and more unreasonable eco-regulation. Arnold and Gottlieb believe environmentalism has long since lost its mind and become a tyrannical special interest bloc focused on the growth and enrichment of its own institutions.

What Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was to the environmental movement, Trashing the Economy is to the American environmental backlash known as the Wise Use Movement. The first 78 pages of the book is a libertarian treatise asserting the sanctity of property, describing American environmentalism as a socialist aberration and affirming what the authors believe to be the principal sin of organized tree huggers: their failure to consider the economic effects of environmental policy. Trashing the Economy discusses the twin tools of manipulation used by environmentalists (guilt, and fear of imminent ecological crisis) and promotes the concept of "regulatory taking" -- the idea that property owners should be compensated by the government for adverse economic effects caused by laws designed to protect the environment.

The Wise Use Movement arose in the Plains states and the Pacific Northwest during the late 1980s and was inspired by angry ranchers and loggers feeling the pinch of environmental regulations. It arrived in the Florida Keys on May 1, 1994, when Ron Arnold stepped off a plane at Miami International Airport wearing a tank top and shorts, drove south in a rental car, and wound up joining the nocturnal entourage that follows Mel Fisher up and down Key West's Duval Street from bar to bar.

Among pro-sanctuary activists, it is common knowledge that Taras Lyssenko is a covert operative of the Wise Use Movement, and that the Conch Coalition is little more than a cell of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, Ron Arnold's West Coast libertarian think tank. (This is what Causey, the sanctuary superintendent, refers to when speaking of the Conch Coalition's "further linkages.") But to consider Arnold's sojourn in the Keys is to put things into better perspective.

Lyssenko himself grudgingly paid for Arnold's plane ticket, after Michele Wells-Usher ran across Trashing the Economy in an airport bookshop. Wells-Usher was planning a rally to jump-start anti-sanctuary efforts, and she hoped Arnold's presence would invigorate the attendees. "I was completely overwhelmed," Wells-Usher says of Trashing the Economy. "All the suspicions I'd had were encompassed, not only encompassed but substantiated in this book. It was a watershed. I had no idea this stuff was going on anywhere else. So we wanted to meet the guru and talk to a leader."

Arnold remembers Lyssenko and the Conch Coalition this way: "The most ragtag damn bunch of people I've ever run into. We drank a lot of beer and shot the breeze. It was just a hoot! If anyone has a good argument for anarchy, they're it. My impression was these guys are basically beach bums, characters out of a Tom Robbins book."

If Arnold found the anti-sanctuary activists amusing, they found him less so. "It became clear that he couldn't help us monetarily," Wells-Usher says. "And as soon as he got here he said, 'You'll never win because it's gone too far already.'"

Lyssenko, a teetotaler with a slim tolerance for boozehounds, notes: "As he was leaving he said not much got accomplished but he sure had fun hanging out with Mel in the bars," Lyssenko recalls.

But Lyssenko stayed in touch with Arnold and eventually received some assistance. Arnold gave the Conch Coalition the phone number of legendary Wise Use rabble-rouser Chuck Cushman, nicknamed "Rent-a-Riot" by his critics in honor of his talents as a rally organizer. (The Conch Coalition decided against inviting Cushman to the Keys.) At the time, the Conch Coalition was in the process of establishing itself as a nonprofit corporation, but the paperwork was pending. Arnold's Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise lent the Keys activists some letterhead and helped the Conch Coalition raise a whopping $1400. Arnold stopped short of sharing his own 125,000-name mailing list.

"Did you ever see the movie Six Degrees of Separation? Okay, that's us," Arnold says, describing the relationship between anti-sanctuary forces in the Keys and the larger conservative Wise Use movement. "Are we linked? Sure. Did we ever help them raise any money? Yes, we did, but it was a drop in the bucket."

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